"You can't grieve over the fate of individuals"
Thomas Büeler is an emergency relief logistics specialist with the Swiss Red Cross (SRK). He recalls the story of his deployment to the Philippines, which had been struck by a raging typhoon in November 2013. Büeler's task is to keep a cool head and create order out of chaos. That is because people affected by a disaster, according to the 41-year-old, expect help, not pity.
Five years ago, I spent several weeks in the Philippines. First I was on the islands of Cebu and Bantayan, then in Ormoc City in the province of Leyte. That is located in the middle of the island nation in Southeast Asia. On November 8, 2013, the region was hit by Typhoon Haiyan, with wind strengths of up to 300 kilometers per hour. The storm killed more than 6,000 people.
As an emergency aid logistics specialist for the SRK, I am tasked with performing preliminary groundwork for possible response options. That means, in the event of a disaster, I determine what immediate measures can be taken to help the affected population most quickly and effectively. Emergency aid refers to basic human needs: water, food, medicine, housing, and safety.
In the Philippines, we quickly saw that the level of destruction of safe housing was extremely high. The debris field stretched across the entire landscape, and there was no way to use the shattered building materials for reconstruction. So, we concentrated on providing emergency shelters first so the people were not forced to move away. When I say "we," I mean a team of six people: one colleague from the Philippine Red Cross, four volunteer helpers from the villages, and me.
The SRK is rarely the only player on the field. Instead, it works together with partner organizations. The national Red Cross organizations support government agencies in performing humanitarian tasks. If multiple Red Cross organizations are deployed together, they need to coordinate, of course, so that they can perform their duties on the one hand while also meeting the needs of the people on the other.
The debris field stretched across the entire landscape, and there was no way to use the shattered building materials for reconstruction.
We thought about the best way to help the many homeless people. There were three options: procure building materials, provide them with cash, or pitch tents for them. We chose the first and the second options. Why? Bantayan was far away from the nearest town, where it would be possible to obtain good-quality building materials at favorable conditions. Transport was difficult, and it was foreseeable that prices would skyrocket because of the high demand. So, we decided to purchase building materials for 3,000 homes ourselves and ship them to the islands. First, that enabled us to ensure the necessary quality and get them for a decent price. Second, we were able to determine which buildings were the first to be rebuilt. Of course, everybody wanted to be first, but municipal infrastructure and the most heavily destroyed private homes took priority. The cash was used to recruit, train, and pay local construction workers. Thus, we created new jobs that had been lost in agriculture. The typhoon had completely destroyed the bamboo and coconut farms. By retraining those workers as carpenters, we achieved higher quality of construction and managed to secure incomes. In addition to the centralized procurement of building materials, our injection of cash paid off significantly in other ways.
From my point of view, reconstruction in the Philippines went very well. Five years after the disaster, all the promised homes have been handed over successfully. This example shows that disasters can be overcome only under certain conditions. First, you have to restore social structures and market capacity – for instance, the availability of food and medication. Then you need a master plan. What is feasible in what amount of time, at what price, and in what quality? That plan is widely discussed with the goal of having all the parties involved – government authorities, business representatives, interest groups, and the general population – agree to it in the end. Information events like that sometimes get as loud as a town meeting in Switzerland. That's understandable because there will always be affected people who deserved aid but nevertheless had to wait because there are unfortunately not enough resources to go around.
From my point of view, reconstruction in the Philippines went very well.
Besides the organizational conditions, the personal interaction also needs to be right for the disaster relief to work and be sustainable. Language, for example, is often a barrier. Luckily, I always had an interpreter with me in the Philippines who translated my English. Second, you need to ensure you are eating and resting properly. In other words, you have to take care of your own health. You need to force yourself to eat and drink regularly despite working 16-hour days. On top of that, you should also allow yourself between five and six hours of sleep. Anyone who neglects to do that will soon have problems: dehydration, blood clots, gastrointestinal diseases. You have to approach deployment for the purpose of emergency relief the same way you would a marathon. Finally, you can't grieve too much over the fate of individuals. In the Philippines, I managed to distance myself pretty well. In 2010, after the big earthquake in Haiti with over 300,000 people dead and just as many injured, it was a lot more difficult. The physical and mental anguish that could be seen everywhere also took its toll on me. But there is one thing you have to keep in mind. The people affected do not expect us to pity them; they expect us to help them. We have a job to do and then return home.
A deployment lasts between four weeks and three months. Whenever I get home, I am happy to go right back to the office. It would do me no good to immediately take a vacation. My body needs several days to power down and release the tension. I prefer to write my report first, do billing, and go through debriefing before taking a week off. My last emergency relief assignment was in October 2018 in Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami on Sulawesi. Before that, I had spent the longest time ever in the office in the 12 years I have been working for the SRK. When I am in Bern, I don't just twiddle my thumbs waiting for the next call. Instead, I work in disaster prevention. Together with other Red Cross organizations, I work on disaster preparedness programs for countries such as Bosnia, Bhutan, Indonesia, and Egypt with a focus on logistics. The programs are emergency plans that are put into effect for the purpose of saving time and money during a disaster.
The people who are truly affected do not expect us to pity them; they expect us to help them.
I found my job at the SRK through an ad. I never would have thought that they would hire me, even though I had already spent a year in Somalia with a French aid organization. I learned the theoretical skills following my apprenticeship as a mechanical draftsman/designer and technical procurement assistant with a second degree in risk management and a master's degree in humanitarian logistics and management. I don't have a family. Constant traveling and unforeseeable absences are not very conducive to relationships. That is the disadvantage of a job that comes with the allure of an adventure and offers many beautiful moments – for example, when we are holding fundraisers and feel the support and willingness to help of the citizens of Switzerland. Of course, there are frustrating aspects, such as the bureaucracy and shifts in power that frequently occur in the wake of disasters. Nevertheless, it often takes a long time to make the world a better place, but if you make the right "investment," you can actually accomplish something.